Diversity and Democracy

The Role of Governing Boards in Addressing Campus Tensions

At many higher education institutions, recent academic years have been characterized by debate and conflict over what it means to be a diverse and inclusive campus, how to ensure free speech while safeguarding against uncivil acts, and whether there are limits to civil discourse. Today’s campus environments are reflections of the larger national environment, and in neither arena is there a clear course of action to ensure the best outcome. Indeed, heightened political tensions nationally have increased tensions on campus.

Across the nation, students are speaking out in numbers and ways not seen in decades, demanding a greater voice in institutional decisions and a more significant role in defining institutional values. In doing so, they are striving to create campus cultures that are more open and inclusive. At the same time, however, they have increasingly demanded “trigger warnings” designed to shield them from language, images, and references that could elicit intense emotional responses from some. Many people, both inside and outside the academy, see these warnings as unnecessarily preventing students from grappling with difficult topics that are part of the educational experience and of life, resulting in a phenomenon that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have called “the coddling of the American mind” (2015). Others believe that trigger warnings are a necessary protection for students who have been traumatized by physical abuse, sexual assault, or racism.

These trends have coincided with a growing intolerance for disagreement—in classrooms, in open forums, in print, and in social media. The most visible examples of this intolerance have arisen in response to invited speakers, some of whom have been met with shouts of disapproval or have been shut down completely before or during their talks. Safety has at times been at issue, with campus lockdowns, physical altercations, fires, and the appearance of masked demonstrators marking some events; videos from these incidents have gone viral. While intended as protests of offensive speech and ideas, these incidents can result in limits on the educational experiences available to students, and can damage the educational missions and reputations of colleges, universities, and higher education as a whole.

The tension on campuses is between the necessity for all students to feel safe and welcome and the necessity for a college or university to provide opportunities for full and constructive debate about competing ideas. The results of a recent Gallup survey of US college students and adults on free expression on campus confirm that students largely live and learn in this area of tension. The survey found that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of college students were “highly confident” about the security of the freedom of speech (Gallup 2016, 3). A slightly larger group (78 percent) agreed that “colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints” in order to create an effective learning environment (3). However, a little over half of students (54 percent) also observed that the “climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive” (4).

The Role of Boards

When issues of free speech, diversity, inclusion, and campus climate arise, presidents, chancellors, provosts, vice presidents, and faculty are often on the front line of response. They are typically expected to comment, apologize, protest, or suggest resolutions to problems.  However, board members increasingly have a role in how a campus addresses conflicts over these critical issues. Governing boards bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that appropriate policies exist to support an institution’s educational mission and create a culture that supports student well-being and success. Increasingly, board members are also expected to be visible on campus, to demonstrate understanding and concern, and to ensure that current policies are implemented to manage tensions over two types of inclusion: meaningful inclusion of all people in the campus community, and inclusion of a range of ideas and perspectives that enable colleges and universities to remain places of robust dialogue and debate.

Board members come to their positions primarily through political appointment, public election, or selection by other board members. They are often successful in business, industry, finance, law, real estate, and other careers, and they serve as a bridge between the campus and the larger community, whether local, regional, or national. Most importantly, they are fiduciaries, holding in trust the colleges and universities they serve. This means that they have special responsibilities to “make careful, good-faith decisions in the best interest of the institution consistent with its public or charitable mission” (Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities 2015, 2). Given their backgrounds and the ways by which they come to their positions, how well prepared are board members to make “careful, good-faith decisions” about students’ needs for inclusion, personal safety, and sufficient intellectual room for development? Given their regular but infrequent visits to campus, how do they engender campus climates that welcome differences of opinion without tolerating uncivil acts? How can they contribute to ensuring that students can learn and thrive?

In 2016, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) released AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Governing Board Accountability for Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility. That statement urges board members to understand and embrace their responsibility for these issues, and it provides guidance and best practices for presidents and board members to promote meaningful diversity and inclusion throughout their institutions in both curricular and cocurricular practices, to build environments that reflect a full diversity of thought, and to engage students intentionally in the examination and analysis of this diversity as a significant part of their education. Importantly, the statement does not recommend specific resolutions to issues of campus climate, diversity, inclusion, and civility because the nature of these issues is specific to each campus.

For boards to engage meaningfully with these responsibilities, they need appropriate involvement with faculty and administrators. In fact, the best strategies for supporting diversity and inclusion and for creating a healthy, civil campus culture likely come from the combined experience and wisdom of boards and of faculty and administrators who have deep understanding of the campus, its constituents, and its educational mission. Boards are most effective when they focus on policies and ensure that the necessary conditions exist to enable the implementation of those policies. They must depend on faculty and the administration for implementation as well as for historical and cultural contexts. Boards are guardians of institutional mission; they rely on faculty and administrators for the daily actions and longer-term plans that ensure the mission is realized.

Current Board Perceptions

To find the right role for faculty and administrators in working with boards on matters of diversity, inclusion, and campus climate, it is helpful to know how board members approach their responsibilities in these areas, as well as what they know and are already doing. In a 2016 survey of board members (the results of which will be published in 2017), AGB found that 95 percent of respondents believe they understand their role in helping to create a positive campus climate. The majority—84 percent—were confident that their system or institution had adequate policies in place to address issues of campus climate, inclusion, and civility, and 82 percent said that their boards had made at least one policy decision in the previous twenty-four months aimed at supporting a positive campus climate. Substantial percentages of respondents (70 to 80 percent) said they have included students, faculty, and noncabinet administrators, respectively, in board conversations about diversity, inclusion, and campus climate over the previous two years.

Most respondents (71 percent) reported that their boards had dedicated adequate time over the previous twelve months to discussions of campus climate, inclusion, and civility. Asked about the number of reports their boards received about protests or other forms of social activism that took place at their institutions over the previous two years, respondents gave answers typically ranging from zero to two, but some said five or more, and about one-fifth selected “don’t know.”

Asked how likely it is that their institutions or systems will experience protests about diversity and inclusion in the following two years, the majority of board members from public institutions and systems answered “somewhat” to “very likely” (69 percent). This compares to 52 percent of board members of private institutions who answered “somewhat” to “very likely.”

In responses to open-ended questions, board members expressed concerns about campus perspectives that are too liberal as well as those that are too conservative. They shared worries about bullying, social media, identity politics, binge drinking, and the post–presidential election climate on their campuses. Their concerns included external influences on internal campus dynamics, insufficient diversity of staff and faculty, the influence of social media, mental health issues, and practical matters such as campus communications systems. Some expressed concerns that the board was not sufficiently involved in, and received too little information about, these issues. Many commented on the importance of engaged leadership and staff.

Recommendations for Engagement

The AGB survey responses reveal several points that are important to faculty and administrators who are interested in working with boards to support the challenging work of ensuring inclusive and civil discourse in campus environments. With appropriate planning, probably with the president or chancellor, and attention to organizational and communication protocols, faculty and administrators can help board members think through the conditions that currently exist as well as the desired state for their institution.

Following are recommended actions that boards, faculty, and administrators can take together to help ensure that their campus supports healthy, civil engagement with diverse ideas and an environment that ensures student success. These recommendations are adapted from a set of action steps on campus climate, inclusion, and civility developed by AGB (2017).

1.  Evaluate efforts to ensure a healthy campus climate. Board members, faculty, administrators, students, and others can work together on a task force to review existing policies and statements. They can also recommend resources—financial support, staffing, special initiatives—to strengthen the campus climate. Where needed, campus constituents can organize and participate in training sessions to ensure shared understanding of key ideas related to diversity, inclusion, and civil engagement.

2.  Ensure that policies related to diversity and inclusion are current and relevant. Such policies exist in offices across campus, from admissions to human resources to student affairs. Periodic review of these policies helps create a campus that is proactive on diversity and inclusion and prepared in case these values are tested.

3.  Develop an institutional statement on campus climate. Board members, faculty, administrators, and other important stakeholders can work together to clarify the institution’s values related to campus climate. A formal statement can demonstrate the campus’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, freedom of speech, civility, and academic freedom.

4.  Create a statement on freedom of expression and civil debate, or review existing statements. A statement or policy on academic freedom, civil discourse, and free speech can set the conditions for healthy debate and treatment of outside speakers on campus. The act of creating or reviewing such a statement can bring clarity for all on important features of campus culture.

5.  Articulate a plan for continuing development related to campus climate concerns. Include training opportunities for the board, faculty, staff, and students, as well as formal mechanisms for board engagement with stakeholders. Develop a regular process for conducting a climate survey and making necessary adjustments.


Governing boards are an important part of the campus community, serving as stewards of the institution. Their fiduciary responsibilities require them to ensure that the institution operates within the law as well as in keeping with its mission. They are accountable to the public as well as to the heritage of the college or university and the values of the academy. For these reasons, their engagement on matters of diversity, inclusion, and campus climate, and on related debates about free speech and civil discourse, is critical. But the nature of these important matters requires a breadth of understanding of campus culture and an awareness of students’ educational needs that faculty and administrators can provide. By working together, boards, faculty, and administrators can align efforts to ensure that campuses are truly inclusive environments that protect free speech and energetic, open dialogue.


Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. 2015. AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on the Fiduciary Responsibilities of Governing Board Members. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. https://www.agb.org/sites/default/files/u27174/statement_2015_fiduciary_duties.pdf.

———. 2016. AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Governing Board Accountability for Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. https://www.agb.org/sites/default/files/agb-statements/statement_2016_campus_climate.pdf.

———. 2017. “Review and Enhance Institutional Policies Related to Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility.” Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. https://www.agb.org/sites/default/files/legacy/u3821/statement_2017_climate_appendix.pdf.

Gallup. 2016. Free Expression on Campus: A Survey of U.S. College Students and U.S. Adults. Washington, DC: Gallup, Inc. https://www.knightfoundation.org/media/uploads/publication_pdfs/FreeSpeech_campus.pdf.

Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2015. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Atlantic, September. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/.

Susan Whealler Johnston is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

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